Build Your Own Supercomputer!

Forbes Magazine
November 15, 1999
by Josh McHugh
Page: 228

If you've got a pet project of your own that requires a supercomputer but are a couple of million dollars short, Adam L. Beberg is your man. Beberg, 25, founded an organization called Distributed.net in 1997. The group's first mission was to decipher cryptographic keys by harnessing the spare processor cycles of thousands of volunteers over the Internet. The point: to undermine, as Beberg puts it, "the government's ridiculous laws about the export of cryptographic technology."

It worked. As more people joined in, Distributed.net cracked three different 56-bit keys, first in 250 days, then 40 days, then in less than 24 hours, mocking government restrictions on strong encryption. The restrictions have since been eased.

Beberg's new project, due early next year: Cosm, do-it-yourself software that will let anyone with a little programming experience and a big idea create similar distributed efforts.

In the projects SETIAtHome and Distributed.net now run, the myriad desktop computers doing the grunt work of the project don't talk to one another--only to a central computer that coordinates the effort. Cosm will let the far-flung PCs communicate with one another, making it possible to simulate weather behavior or create a feature-length animated film like Toy Story on the cheap.

With Cosm handling the technical stuff, the main worry will be getting people to sign up. "If it's something really neat, you can recruit like crazy," says Beberg. "Your project will have to compete on a social level."


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